Tehran's leaders will be tempted to attack Gulf states again to divert attention from their domestic woes

Following the Saudi Aramco assault, regime loyalists think the best way to respond to internal political pressures is to engage in action further afield
epa08028626 A handout photo made available by the supreme leader office shows Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting the crowd during a meeting with members of Basij forces (voluntary security forces) in Tehran, Iran, 27 November 2019. Media reported that Khamenei said that Iranians had foiled a 'very dangerous plot' involving US during the protests over increasing fuel price this month.  EPA/LEADER OFFICE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

As fresh evidence emerges of Iranian involvement in September’s devastating attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil infrastructure, there is a growing consensus among military commanders that Tehran could be planning further attacks.

The recent upsurge in Iranian acts of aggression in the Gulf was one of the dominant themes at the recent Manama Dialogue security conference organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Gulf leaders in particular were keen to stress the need not to give in to Iran's bullying tactics, with Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Jubeir warning in a speech to the conference that it was important world powers did not try to appease Tehran. "Appeasement did not work with Hitler. It will not work with the Iranian regime," he warned.

The robust position being adopted by Gulf leaders to defend their interests has led to Kuwait and Qatar announcing that they are to join the US-led maritime coalition that aims to protect merchant shipping in the Arabian Gulf.

The International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), as it is known, was set up in Bahrain in the summer in response to a number of Iranian acts of aggression in the Gulf, including the shooting down of a US Navy drone and the hijacking of the British-registered oil tanker Stena Impero.

Efforts to provide enhanced security in the Gulf come at a time when the top US general in the region is warning that the threat from Iran continues to rise, and that there is a strong possibility Tehran will seek to engage in further hostile acts against its Gulf neighbours and their allies.

“I think the strike on Saudi Aramco in September is pretty indicative of a nation that is behaving irresponsibly,” said General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command during an interview at the Manama Dialogue. “My judgment is that it is very possible they will attack again.”

Since May, the Pentagon has dispatched 14,000 additional troops, an aircraft carrier battle group, and tens of thousands of pounds of military equipment to the Middle East to respond to the Iranian threat.

But with the Iranian regime under intense domestic political pressure because of the disastrous state of the country’s economy, its leaders will be tempted to engage in further acts of aggression as a means of diverting attention away from their travails.

Efforts to provide enhanced security in the Gulf come at a time when the top US general in the region is warning that the threat from Iran continues to rise

Certainly one of the more striking features of the detailed report compiled by Reuters news agency into the Aramco attack – one of the most comprehensive accounts of Iran’s involvement published to date – is the claim that the assault was personally commissioned by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as a means of responding to the US sanctions.

Despite Tehran’s initial insistence that the Iranian economy would not be adversely affected by US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal last year and impose a fresh round of sanctions, the reality has been very different as the regime has seen a disastrous run on the rial, with inflation currently running at around 40 per cent, causing sharp price rises in basic staples such as meat and vegetables.

Public discontent with the government's stewardship of the economy has been running high for nearly a year, culminating in the latest nationwide protests over the recent hike in fuel prices. The protests and subsequent crackdown are thought to have led to more than 200 deaths and about 7,000 arrests.

Regime loyalists believe the best way of responding to internal pressure is to engage in action further afield, thought to be a key factor in Iran’s decision to target the Aramco facilities.

Planning for the attack is said to have originated at a meeting that took place in May in a heavily fortified compound in Tehran, which was attended by senior commanders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The main topic on the agenda was how to punish the US for withdrawing from the nuclear deal and imposing fresh sanctions.

The mood of the meeting was summed up by one commander, who declared: “It is time to take out our swords and teach them a lesson.”

Initially IRGC commanders raised the possibility of attacking high-value targets in the region such as American military bases. But this notion was eventually discounted over concerns that such an attack would provoke a devastating response from the US and its allies. Consequently Iranian commanders were keen to find a target that would not lead to a direct confrontation, with the result that the decision was taken to attack the oil facilities of Washington’s close ally, Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s determination to avoid a confrontation with the US can be seen in the suggestion made in the Reuters report that Mr Khamenei counselled that he would only grant his approval on the condition that Iranian forces took measures to avoid hitting any civilians or Americans.

Iranian officials, who have dismissed the findings of the report, continue to deny their country’s involvement, even though both the Saudis and US believe Tehran was responsible, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemning it as “an act of war”.

But Washington's failure to respond militarily to either the Aramco attack or other acts of Iranian aggression in the Gulf has led many military commanders to conclude that there is a strong likelihood Iran will undertake further attacks in the coming months.

The big risk for Tehran in maintaining this policy of aggression in the region is that any miscalculation could result in a major escalation of hostilities with the US and its allies.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National